Sandy Baldwin's response to Lori Emerson
Culture, we learn early in Walter Benn Michaels’ The Shape of the Signifier: 1967 to the End of History, has become a primary technology for disarticulating difference from disagreement. Why a technology? Because of the text machine that produces and articulates this notion of culture and its resulting disarticulation. In other words, as Michaels’ parenthetical clause inserts and asserts, the persuasion of his argument rests on a theory of text that not only thematizes cultural difference and disagreement but thematizes text as this difference. Michaels’ notion of text is difficult not in the least because he shows that concepts such as materiality and embodiment, which function almost as an intuitive background for much recent scholarship, in fact require complex sets of beliefs and institutional commitments. Worse, these concepts turn out to be ways of avoiding the rigorous work of reading and theorizing texts. Embodiment disappears as the promised land of theory, and becomes an escape to a politics of difference without disagreement - that is, without debate or critique.
However, the technology that produces cultural concepts is considerably more elusive than even Michaels allows, and Lori Emerson’s helpful review does much of the hard work by using Susan Howe, a central figure in Michaels’ argument, as a kind of hinge to unpack the rest of the book. At the least, Emerson sees Michaels overlooking nuances in his reading of Howe, with repercussions for the other readings comprising the book. More largely, Emerson wants to see these overlooked nuances as signs of a missed encounter between Michaels and the subjects of his book, an encounter that would not only complicate Michaels’ argument but would lead to a significantly different set of claims. I will limit myself to underlining these complications to clarify what Emerson leaves implicit. In particular, I want to highlight Emerson’s qualification of Michaels’ arguments as seductive. I will also return to the question concerning technology and digital poetry raised briefly but importantly by Emerson.
Michaels’ argument builds on an account of a shift from understanding texts in terms of their authorial meaning to understanding texts as material objects without meaning. In particular, Emerson zeroes in on Michaels’ reading of Susan Howe on Emily Dickinson. Michaels argues that an emphasis on the physicality of Dickinson’s work leads Howe to assume meaninglessness in Dickinson’s texts. Where all physical characteristics are significant, none can mean anything significant. Texts stop making sense. It is here that Emerson begins her rescue operation, arguing that for Howe the text, however physical, must be read as an artifact of the author’s act of writing and as that which bears meaning on countless different levels. The result is an open-ended multiplicity of textual meanings, or the release of the energy inherent in the referential dimension of language, in Emerson’s citation of Charles Bernstein. The clear advantage to Emerson’s interpretation of Howe is a much more nuanced account of poetic meaning.
Interestingly, she then proceeds to choose well-known digital poems to invoke a break from traditional modes of authorship and a claim for understanding the poem in terms of its materiality. I will return later to the specific question of the digital, but what interests me here is Emerson’s claim that these digital poems are rife with intention, which appears to neutralize Michaels’ claim that once we speak of materiality we can no longer speak of intention. In this instance, and overall, Emerson seems to suggest that there are certain poems that are more intentional and than others, a difference measured in terms of how much leeway the author allows the reader - we might say measured by how writerly or readerly the text is in Barthes’ sense. However, this semiotic and response-oriented means of evaluation leads to terminological and conceptual problems with the use of intention and meaning - problems which stem in part from differences in usage for these terms in the phenomenological and hermeneutic tradition, on the one hand, and in the American New Critical tradition, on the other. Of course these two semantic fields are not unrelated, but their terms differ in significant ways. Furthermore, the more recent and familiar turn to semiotic theories offers an uneasy combination of phenomenology and New Criticism. The phenomenological ontology of text which is largely responsible for the semantics of intention at play in Michaels’ work (via de Man, in turn via Husserl and so on) allows for neither more or less meaning nor more or less intention. Rather, the meaning of a text is the creative accomplishment of an intending subject which in turn constitutes the intentional structure of a text. Certainly it is possible to replace intentional structure with signification and semiotic reference, in which case meaning is then described as an intra-semiotic achievement. But Michaels’ point here, and it is a telling one, is that this replacement involves foregoing the singular project of phenomenology along with any claim for the primacy of subjective consciousness. That is, there is no longer meaning in the strict phenomenological sense but rather a semiotic code for meaning (perhaps Barthes’ hermeneutic code), just as there is no intentionality but rather a code for intention. Michaels recognizes that the result is necessarily a certain indifference to intention, for if intention is one code among others, there can be little point in arguing that we should be concerned with the beliefs of Howe or Dickinson or any other author. The seemingly generous claim that intention remains one textual code among others is cold comfort to the phenomenologist.
Michaels’ point is that such claims about textual multiplicity and dissemination leave us nothing to say about belief, or at least nothing rigorous to say; we are left only with the petitio principii that we are defined by our embodied materiality. What interests Michaels, then, is the political outcome of this shift from intentionality to materiality. When texts are seen as intentional structures then they are interpreted in terms of what people believe; reading leads to an identification with ideological commitments that becomes the focus of critique. By contrast, the shift to seeing texts as material, as non-cognitive and entirely physical, can only result in an account of what people are; reading leads to an identification with the bodies of authors and readers, with embodied subjects. Text as material and the implied subject positions are beyond belief. End of discussion and triumph of the New World Order. We live and let die in terms of who we are. The Iraqi in Gitmo is tortured because he is evil, not because what he believes is evil.
For Michaels, foregrounding this shift lays bare history above and beyond the events of the day. The shift produces history, determines and organizes the events around us and by exposing this change in assumptions about the ontology of text, Michaels hopes to weaken the quasi-ontological commitments to embodiment and materiality, to make identity itself be seen as a cognitive commitment as much as a material given. Michaels’ target is commitments that replace debate over the history that we make with the assertion that history comes about because we are what we are. His analysis repeats in another register the recent interest in biopolitics following Giorgio Agamben, where identity is embodied through institutional procedures which themselves are isolated from ideological scrutiny.
Again, at the same time as the shift in textual ontology produces history, texts are also up for grabs. However, the belief and debate that interests Michaels cannot be separated from the poetics of texts. Texts remain in advance of history as media structures in some way fungible and deep enough to permit continual renewal and return. Thus the material absoluteness of the historical shift Michaels identifies - a shift that explains everything since at least 1967 - is relativized by the mediality of texts. Texts resist any theory that would make them simply material or simply intentional. It is here that Emerson’s critique is most valuable. Emerson foregrounds the larger implications of Michaels account of changes in reading protocols - implications that are proven through their own explanatory power or momentum in current politics. Emerson shows the rhetorical construction of this momentum by looking at the poetics of text. The priority of materiality is a product of rhetorical assumptions about the ends of reading and not any theoretical necessity.
This is exactly why Michaels likes de Man. In Michaels’ references to de Man - Excuses or Phenomenality and Materiality in Kant, admitting the significant differences between these late essays - texts are shown to present themselves as structures of intention and meaning, sites of aesthetic experience on the part of a cognizing subject, but such texts also reveal under scrutiny a kinetics of meaning-like tropological effects rather than any actual experience or cognition. Texts generate a surplus of such effects which can be described as meaningless insofar as they do not refer back to the phenomenological paradigm of the author as intending subject. De Man typically pushes this insight to the point of what he calls materiality. The meaning-like effects of tropes are nothing but effects, and the ideological and epistemological commitments attached to meaning collapse into the so-called negative knowledge of the failure of ontological or hermeneutic arguments. Along the way, de Man’s dealing with texts precisely meets the criteria of the plural and open-ended readerly text proposed by Emerson, but he inevitably leads the reader to an impasse which no reading can resolve. This rigorous process is exactly what qualifies de Man’s work as deconstruction, and it is exactly what Michaels likes about de Man: Michaels admires de Man for taking his position as far as it is possible to go. He admires the momentum of de Man’s reading and the inevitability of its conclusions. Precisely this allows Michaels to see de Man’s views as the result of the underlying shift in textual ontology - as evidence rather than as a critique of this shift - and it is precisely this that allows Michaels to conclude that in the end de Man’s position is completely mistaken. For Michaels, de Man and Howe push the limits. Emphasizing the ends and the inevitability of the ends provides the shape of Michaels’ historical narrative, and so if reading leads to the materiality of the text then reading must always lead to this point. Howe and de Man, then, do for him what he cannot as this would require seeing his argument as part of the rhetoric of texts and not of the inevitability of history.
What is left out of Michael’s teleology of the material, embodied post-historical world, are the mechanisms through which this world is achieved. Emerson’s critique insists on the technicality of historical narratives such as Michaels’, on the rhetoric required to achieve such a claim about reading. Returning to Emerson’s possible over-emphasis on intention, we can see that texts are quasi-intentional beyond and despite any phenomenological or semiotic account. Bernstein’s notion of semblance described in the essay of the same name quoted by Emerson, and itself citing without reference Adorno’s notion of artwork as semblance or apparition, is precisely this surplus poetics of texts. The very possibility of reading a historical shift in the dynamics of text interpretation takes for granted the irreducibility of aesthetic appearances. Quasi-intentional structures prohibit the too-quick movement from reading to historical conclusions by foregrounding the way readers and conclusions are produced or performed by and from the text.
When Michaels asserts that culture is a primary technology for disarticulating difference from disagreement, of course he means the irreducibility of culture as something one has materially and bodily. But he equally means to target the automatic function of this primary technology. That culture works consistently this way is its technological functioning. More importantly, texts are the underlying mechanism through which such technologies gain their momentum. A similar inevitability and automaticity is at work in Michaels’ reading of poverty. For Michaels, institutions are machinic and automatic, with texts as the model and engine. His argument seduces by passing off this automaticity as the stuff of history rather than the rhetorical outcome of reading.
This leads to the interesting status of digital poetry. The machine that performs anyhow beyond all intention or cognition, as de Man put it, continues to run at the core of our beliefs about texts. The interest in a digital poetry, a poetry of the machine, even when such poems may be made with pencil and paper, highlights a shift in this machine. That is, digital poetry, wherever this poetry is found, reflects our intentions to and through texts and exemplifies the poem at the limit of materiality and authorship (it is rife with intention). The digital poem shows quasi-intentionality, shows it with intensity, intensified both in its intentionality and in its (quasi) mediality. Digital poetry shows us our notions of intention, materiality, and authorship. This showing is more radical and more historical than the hidden schema employed by Michaels.